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New Horizons off to Pluto

Successful launch for NASA mission

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New Horizons blasts off. Photo: NASANASA's New Horizons' mission to Pluto blasted off yesterday from Cape Canaveral - the first step in a 10-year, one-way trip.

According to the NASA press release, the Atlas V rocket carrying the vehicle lifted off at 14:00 EST. It separated from the solid fuel "kick motor" a tad under 45 minutes later. Five minutes after that, radio signals from New Horizons confirmed that all was well.

Dr Colleen Hartman, deputy associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, enthused: "Today, NASA began an unprecedented journey of exploration to the ninth planet in the solar system. Right now, what we know about Pluto could be written on the back of a postage stamp. After this mission, we'll be able to fill textbooks with new information."

Dr. Alan Stern, New Horizons' principal investigator, indulged in a bit of flag-waving with: "The United States of America has just made history by launching the first spacecraft to explore Pluto and the Kuiper Belt beyond. No other nation has this capability. This is the kind of exploration that forefathers, like Lewis and Clark 200 years ago this year, made a trademark of our nation."

There's still a long way to go, though. The NASA blurb explains:

"The 1,054-pound, piano-sized spacecraft is the fastest ever launched, speeding away from Earth at approximately 36,000 miles per hour, on a trajectory that will take it more than three billion miles toward its primary science target. New Horizons will zip past Jupiter for a gravity assist and science studies in February 2007, and conduct the first close-up, in-depth study of Pluto and its moons in summer 2015. As part of a potential extended mission, the spacecraft would then examine one or more additional objects in the Kuiper Belt - the region of ancient, icy, rocky bodies (including Pluto) far beyond Neptune's orbit."

New Horizons packs, as we previously reported, "imaging infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, a multi-color camera, a long-range telescopic camera, two particle spectrometers, a space-dust detector and a radio science experiment".

The vehicle will spend most of its jaunt in hibernation mode, sending out a weekly beacon signal to report on status. Once a year, scientists will perform a health check to monitor "critical systems, calibrate instruments and perform course corrections, if necessary". New Horizons gets its juice from "a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator" and consumes less than 200 watts.

Once at Pluto, New Horizons will "characterize the global geology and geomorphology of Pluto and Charon [Pluto's moon], map their surface compositions and temperatures, and examine Pluto's atmospheric composition and structure". ®

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